Turning Failure into Success

I spent at least half my childhood drawing. By the time I got to college and signed up for my first drawing class, I was pretty comfortable with a pencil. My teacher was a brilliant draftsman named Will Reimann. To impress him, I fired up all my best tricks: lots of varied lines, fade-outs, soft gradients. One day while I was drawing, something landed on my sketch pad. It was a mechanical drafting pen.

“Use that from now on,” said Mr. Reimann. And he smiled the smile of a man who has hatched an evil plot.

Oh, how I hated that damn pen! It drew a stark black line of unvarying thickness, making all my faboo pencil techniques impossible. You’d think my teacher would’ve been helpful, or at least forgiving. But no. He’d glance at my awkward ink drawings, groan “Oh, God,” and walk away holding his head in his hands, like a migraine sufferer. My art grade plummeted. I writhed with frustration. A few weeks later, as I sat in another class taking notes with the Loathsome Pen of Doom, something happened. Without my intention, my hand started dancing with that horrible pen. Together, they began making odd marks: hatches, overlapping circles, patches of stippling.

The next drawing I completed won a juried art show. “How did you figure out a drafting pen could do this?” one of the judges asked me.

“I failed,” I told them. “Over and over again.”

Since then I’ve had many occasions to celebrate failure, in myself and in others. From my life-coaching seat, I’ve noticed that the primary difference between successful people and unsuccessful people is that the successful people fail more. If you see failure as a monster stalking you, or one that has already ruined your life, take another look. That monster can become a benevolent teacher, opening your mind to successes you cannot now imagine.

The Optional Agony of Defeat

My dog-groomer friend Laura breeds and shows prizewinning poodles. One afternoon she arrived at the off-leash dog park looking thoroughly dejected.

“What’s wrong?” I asked her as our pets gamboled about.

“Ewok,” said Laura, nodding mournfully toward her well-coiffed dog. “He didn’t even place at the show yesterday. Didn’t…even…place! And he just hates to lose!” Her voice was so bitter I winced. “He should have been best in show,” she said. “Look at him—he’s perfect!”

I looked at Ewok. He looked fine—but perfect? Who knew? To me, saying a poodle with long legs is better than one with short legs seems absurd. A poodle’s a poodle, for heaven’s sake. I think Ewok would’ve agreed. He certainly didn’t seem to be the one who hated losing. He’d discovered a broken Frisbee and appeared to be experiencing the sort of rapture Saint Teresa felt when visited by God.

Laura’s desolation stemmed not from what actually happened at the dog show but from her ideas about success and failure. Lacking such concepts, Ewok was simply enjoying life. Going to dog shows and winning, going to dog shows and losing, going to the park and scavenging—from Ewok’s perspective, it was all good. Meanwhile, Laura’s thoughts about losing had tainted all these experiences. Thankfully, she’d managed to avoid a pitfall even worse than failure: success.

“Success is as dangerous as failure,” said Lao-tzu, and any life coach knows this is true. I can’t count the number of times people have told me, “I hate the job I’m doing, but I’m good at it. To do what I want, I’d have to start at zero and I might fail.” Dwelling on failure can make us miserable, but dwelling on success can turn us into galley slaves, bound to our wretched benches solely by the thought, “I hate this, but at least I’m good at it.” This is especially ironic because researchers report that satisfaction thrives on challenge. Think about it: A computer game you can always win is boring; one you can win sometimes, and with considerable effort, is fun.

With time-killing games, where the stakes are very low, pretty much everyone’s willing to risk failure. But when it comes to things we think really matter, like creating a career or raising children, we hunker down, tighten up, and absolutely refuse to fail. Anyway, that’s the theory. The reality is, we are going to fail. Then we make things worse by refusing to accept this.

Tammy came to me distraught because her 17-year-old son, Jason—her perfect son, whom she’d raised with perfect love, perfectly following every known rule of perfect motherhood—had been arrested for public intoxication.

“I’ve failed,” Tammy sobbed. “I’ve failed Jason; I’ve failed myself!”

“Yup,” I said. “You got that right.”

Tammy stared at me as though I’d slapped her. Clearly, that was not my line. I shrugged. “You’ve failed a million times, and you’ve succeeded a million times. Welcome to parenthood. Do you know any mothers who never fail their kids?”

“Sure,” Tammy said, nodding. “A lot of my friends at the country club are perfect mothers.” She wept even harder. “And they say horrible things about the bad mothers. Now they’ll judge me, because Jason…” She dissolved in sobs.

“Tell me,” I said, “do you actually like any of those women?”

The sobbing stopped abruptly. There was a long moment of silence, and then Tammy seemed to transform before my eyes. She sat up straighter.

“You know, I don’t,” she said. “I don’t really like any of them.”

“I believe you,” I said. “I don’t know your friends, but if I had to live with someone like the person you were a minute ago, I’d start drinking too.”

“I do live with her,” said Tammy wryly. “And I’d love a drink.”

“Hear, hear,” I said. “So go home and apologize to Jason for imitating mothers you don’t even like. Try being real with him—teenagers love that. Every moment you’re real with him, you’re succeeding as a mother. Every moment you lose yourself by trying to be perfect, you’re failing. And the moment you accept that you’re failing, you’re succeeding again.”

Tammy squinted at me. “You’re telling me to accept failure as a mother?”

“Whenever you fail,” I said. “Got any other options?”

“Well, no…but accept failure? As a mother? I can’t.”

“Sure you can,” I said. “Try this: Think about the fact that you failed to control Jason. Notice how you’re all scrunched up, thinking, ‘Oh, no!’?”

Tammy nodded.

“Okay, now unscrunch, and instead of saying, ‘Oh, no!’ say, ‘Oh, well…'”

I beamed at Tammy. She waited for me to go on. I didn’t.

Tammy laughed. “I can’t believe this,” she said. “I came here thinking you could tell me how to fix my son, and the best advice you’ve got is, ‘Oh, well’?”

“Damn. You’re right,” I said. “I’ve totally failed you.” I took a deep breath, and relaxed. “Oh, well…”

Tammy looked at me for another long minute. Then she said, “Just your saying that makes me trust you.” This is the magic of accepting that you’ve done your very best but failed. Own your failure openly, publicly, with genuine regret but absolutely no shame, and you’ll reap a harvest of forgiveness, trust, respect, and connection—the things you thought you’d get by succeeding. Ironic, isn’t it?

Blasting Through Attachments

I owe my ability to accept maternal failure to my son Adam. Though I bred young, never smoked or drank, ate right, and all that, Adam showed up with an extra chromosome, mentally challenged. Oops. From the word “go,” I’d failed to make him a successful student, athlete, rocket scientist. In my mind, nothing could compensate for such massive failures.

This was when I discovered that the bigger the perceived problem, the better it delivers failure’s great gift: freedom from attachment to ideas about success. A lucky person escapes her enemies. But a really lucky person (as the poet Rumi puts it) “slips into a house to escape enemies, and opens the door to the other world.”

This can happen in tiny ways and huge ones. The day my pencil-proficient mind accepted failure and allowed my hand to start dancing with that mechanical pen, a door opened on a new way of drawing. Accepting that I’d failed to create a “normal” life for my child blasted away much bigger assumptions, bone-deep beliefs like “Successful mothers have smart children” and “My kids should never fail.”

This hurt like a sonovabitch, but when the rubble cleared, I found myself in a world where all judgments of success and failure are arbitrary and insignificant, as ridiculous (no offense) as the American Kennel Club’s definition of the “perfect” poodle. Without judgments, it’s obvious that joy is available in every moment—and never in anything else.

I can see that Tammy gets this. Jason’s rebellion becomes a gift as failure does for Tammy what I’ve seen it do for so many others: soften, mellow, calm, enrich, embolden. The poet Antonio Machado expressed it this way:

Last night as I was sleeping
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

I can’t say I look forward to the failures that await me. But they’ll be along in no time, so I feel lucky to know what to do when each one arrives. It will work for you too. Unscrunch. Exhale. Let go of “Oh, no!” and embrace “Oh, well…” Then, whatever door opens, walk through it.

Failing Upward

By my sophomore year in college, mechanical pens were my favorite drawing instruments. Trial and error (and error, and error) had made me so comfortable with them that they felt like extensions of my hands. Being a masochist and a fool, I signed up for another class from Mr. Reimann. One morning while I was drawing, something landed on my sketch pad. It was a watercolor brush.

“Use that from now on,” said my teacher. “You’ll hate it. You put a mark down on the paper, and half an hour later, it decides what it’s going to look like.”

I picked up the brush. “You’re not going to help me with this, are you?”

“Well, let’s put it this way,” said Mr. Reimann. “The sooner you make your first 5,000 mistakes, the sooner you’ll get on to the next 5,000.” And he walked away smiling his evil-plot smile, having arranged yet another dance with failure, inspirer of all uninspired artists, master teacher of all master teachers.

21 replies
  1. Kelly
    Kelly says:

    Oh my… your words are so BRUTAL.. and fabulous and TRUE. I might need to laminate this blog and wear it around my neck as a constant reminder.

  2. Marlene
    Marlene says:

    Bravo, lady! Bravo! Full of truth, this. Thank you for reminding us all that rigid definitions of success are ridiculously arbitrary, oppressive, and just useless, and that true joy is always to be found in humility.

  3. Marie
    Marie says:

    I have endured more failure in this year than in my entire life. I quit my well paying yet dead end job. I took time off to figure out what I really wanted. I pursued higher education and positions of greater title with good companies. I failed in both, I didn’t get into the graduate program of my choosing and I lost a fantastic position at the very last moment when someone within the company scooped up the position. In both instances, I felt like I was being lead in those directions as I continued to meditate and listen to myself. At this point, I’m not really sure what to make of any of it. I’m almost all out of saying ‘oh, well’ since each ‘oh, well’ feels like a dip in my life. I am used to winning and this is the first time that I have lost for an entire year. I’m pushing forward as best I can. I will say that from this year of turbulence, I’ve learned what I want from life and what I really treasure. I have gained resilience and a sense of peace. My eyes are brighter than they have ever been even after a series of harsh disappointments. Like I said, I don’t know what to make of any of this.

    • Val
      Val says:

      To quote a woman who went through a very difficult year, “I’ve gained resilience and a sense of peace.” There are people everywhere still struggling for just those things.

  4. val
    val says:

    Yep, you spoke to my heart. Recently I failed. It cost me a fortune and I’m still reeling from “putting all my eggs in one basket”. “Aw well” is not what came to mind until I read this. Thank you for restoring sanity.

  5. Michele
    Michele says:

    Martha, Your posts are always so incredible, causing me to look very deep….. I’ve spent so much of the last 40! yes I said 40 years chastising myself for my failures in career and relationship….and forever seeking to steer correctly to choose the right path — meanwhile often missing out on the joy of the present in my. life…(and in many ways torturing myself and others around me in my endless seeking) Finally at 39 being blessed with having a child late in life, a dream I was seeking for years, after several “failed” relationships, my beautiful, loving sensitive and amazing son was born. (with difficulty – emergency c section another failure) After the last 3 years of confusion, chaos and crisis, at 15, my beloved son has been diagnosed with a persistent and severe mental illness ( statistically viewed as one of the 10 “worst” diseases on our planet to cope with – schizophrenia, and if that wasn’t enough, struggles with substance use..Failure again, as a mother, wife, parent. Marths, somehow, to say oops or oh well…. in some ways, feels out of line with the depth of my grief given suffering inherent in mental illness and the ongoing challenge, stigma and unclear prognosis ) Yes I am gaining freedom from my attachment to ideas about success! these silver linings have helped me begin to come out of my grief and care-giver burnout. Still, it is a tough row to hoe…..I am still at a point where I say I would gladly have settled for a less powerful gift. It had to be this bad (and my son to suffer?) for me to have a spiritual lesson to stop obsessing about perceived success?

  6. Katie Peterson
    Katie Peterson says:

    This post might have just saved my life. Been spinning in a sea of shame for not being able to finish any of the delicious creative projects that have come into my consciousness the past few years.
    Oh well…

  7. Shelby Murphy
    Shelby Murphy says:

    What a great piece! Those words have soaked into my soul and I feel refreshed. And this: “This was when I discovered that the bigger the perceived problem, the better it delivers failure’s great gift: freedom from attachment to ideas about success”… wow! Thank you, Martha, for articulating a feeling I’ve had from my vast number of failures, but never been able to give context to — failure’s greatest gift is the freedom it gives me from my attachment to success. I wish I could tattoo this behind my eyelids and read it whenever I need to. Thank you again!

  8. Yasmin
    Yasmin says:

    Martha. You’re my soul mate friend. Blessed to have come across you so early on in life. YOU really speak my language. And for what it’s worth I’m sending you innumerable blessings for love light and joy in each moment of your life here and thereafter. You are really an example of self realisation. You are so so so special Martha beck.

  9. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    After my daughter died from a particularly nasty brain tumor, I started my life over, but not exactly as planned. For about ten years I was a “floor-covering specialist’ – I sold carpet, and vinyl and tile and wood. To mostly women, who were mostly way too worried about the exact shade of taupe their new frieze carpet should be. One day I was at my desk around lunch time when an installer wandered in and had a seat in my “client” chair. He was working on a very expensive job for me at the time. I looked up, said “Hi Mark, how’s it going?” He just looked at me for a minute, then said, “What are two things you never want to hear an installer say while he’s working on your job?” My heart sank – disaster was the only thing I could foresee. I took a deep breath and, through a grimace that was supposed to look like a reassuring smile, said, “God, I hope this isn’t what it sounds like. So, I don’t know, Mark, what two things do
    I never want to hear?” He smiled, ear to ear, and said, “The first is ‘OH SHIT!'”, then he stood up, laughed as hard as anyone ever had and said, “the second is “OH WELL!” Right after I realized it was a pretty good joke, at my expense, I cracked up, told Mark thanks, and decided it is probably the best, maybe only, good response to any “Oh shit” situation, ever. Changed my life, just wish it had happened while my angel was still alive.

  10. Stefanie
    Stefanie says:

    It’s all about accepting what is with whatever we do and who we are lucky enough to have in our lives. That’s all we ever have, this moment and our sincere efforts. Look for beauty and truth wherever you are because often we miss just how gorgeous struggling is. Our trying, our effort , our vulnerability is the action to our magnificent human nature…celebrated in defeat, without which we would not recognize success. They both deserve praise. Write on Martha! You are loved.

  11. Heather
    Heather says:

    Wow. You always find the words that resonate deeply with my heart. Failure has indeed given me gifts to soften, mellow, calm, enrich, and embolden.

    Blog posts and chapters don’t get better than this.

    <3 I love you, Martha <3

  12. Kate
    Kate says:

    Some failures stay with you forever. My only child killed himself. It’s been 18 months and I’m still walking around with a hole in my heart that will never be repaired. I thought I was a good mother. I guess not.


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  1. […] more, fail better, fail smarter, fail wisely – experts agree that if you want to succeed, you need to […]

  2. […] want to see. but i’m not blind to synchronicity. you see, the other day i happened upon this great piece by martha beck about failure, and she happened to quote one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets, […]

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